In a series of street interviews in Gaza over the past few days, passersby said that the Israeli air strikes stopped the civil war in the Strip. In fact, they told journalist Sa'ud Abu Ramadan sarcastically, Gaza residents should thank Israel for helping them to stop the internecine killings. The many dead in the fighting between Fatah and Hamas caused greater concern among Gaza residents of every stripe than did the number of people killed in Israeli attacks. This could be seen, inter alia, in the way the Palestinian media related to those killed in the internal clashes. While anyone killed by an Israel Defense Forces attack is called a shahid (martyr), the media did not even give the full names of many of those killed in the internecine fighting. This was due to a desire to prevent bitterness and attempts at revenge.

It was Hamas operatives who invited the Israeli air strikes. Over a week ago, as the fighting between the organizations in Gaza was getting worse, spokesmen for Hamas said loudly and openly that they hoped the firing of Qassam rockets at Sderot would produce an Israeli response of a kind that would put an end to the internecine killings. There were several reasons for this hope. First, even though Hamas had the upper hand in the clashes with Fatah, it was clear that Fatah had not given up. Indeed, there was growing concern that the parties were being dragged into a prolonged conflict in which a great deal of blood would be spilled. Second, the fact that a civil war was breaking out in Gaza at a time when a Hamas-led government was in control was extremely uncomfortable for the movement's leadership. After all, it had hoped that a Hamas government would succeed in establishing law and order. But what happened was just the opposite - governmental chaos, anarchy in the security realm and bloodshed.

And if this were not enough, the Hamas movement, as is well-known, was built on the military confrontation with Israel. When there is no conflict, no violence and no terror, no one needs Hamas. Just as Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement are not relevant when there are no diplomatic negotiations, so Hamas is not relevant when there is quiet on the Israel front.

As so many other regimes have done throughout history, so also Hamas dragged Gaza into an external confrontation with Israel in order to shift the focus and calm the internal front, which was troubling it more than anything else.

Telephone conversations with residents of Gaza about the mood in the Strip give the impression that the Israeli air strikes are merely strengthening the status of Hamas. Israeli aircraft aim their bombs at Hamas operatives and at the bases of the Executive Force set up by the Hamas interior minister. Israel very clearly refrains from attacking Fatah bases. This of course assists Hamas, whose very basis for existence is the conflict with Israel.

Against this background, it seems obvious that the discussions being organized by the Egyptians about both external and internal cease-fires will move forward slowly. The Egyptians, led by General Omar Suleiman, first invited a Fatah delegation to Cairo. Next they will speak to Hamas people, and later to people from the other organizations. Only at the end will all the sides be invited to attend a concluding discussion, at which they will presumably, as usual, sign a "document of honor" that will pledge to ensure the well-being and security of ordinary Palestinians. It is extremely possible that Hamas is in no hurry to arrive at a cease-fire. For now, Hamas spokesmen are not relinquishing their demand that Israel extend any cease-fire to the West Bank as well, and the movement's leaders are prepared to continue firing Qassams purely for fear that a hudna (truce) with Israel would lead to a resumption in the internecine warfare. And of course, it is far better to fight against Israel than to kill one another.